The Small Business at Work Toolkit

Helping small businesses welcome employees with disabilities
A group of office workers sit at computers in a modern open plan office


A simple step-by-step process

What are accommodations?

It’s likely you’re already accommodating employees: Someone taking a college class needs to take a longer lunch break to listen to a lecture. The spouse of a deploying service member needs a little time off to deal with family issues. An employee who just had knee surgery gets a parking spot that’s closer to his office. Essentially, accommodation just means making some changes to meet the needs of your employees so they can perform their jobs well and keep working.

Accommodation under the ADA

Two office workers are having a pleasant conversation. The focus is on the woman on the left, who has a big smile on her face.According to the ADA, an accommodation is any change in the work environment, or in the way things are customarily done, to help a person with a disability apply for a job, perform the duties of a job, or enjoy the benefits and privileges of employment.

The ADA requires employers to make a good faith effort to accommodate applicants and employees with known disabilities unless this causes undue hardship. The employer pays for and ultimately decides what accommodation will be put into place. But this decision is made after interacting with the employee to get their take on what is needed. The accommodation the employer puts into place must also be effective.

A performance enhancement and retention strategy

Several studies[1] have shown that an ADA accommodation is often an investment rather than a cost. Fifty-eight percent of accommodations cost nothing at all. Of those that have a cost, the median amount was $500. Also, employees who were accommodated had better performance ratings, were less likely to leave the job, and had fewer absences. Accommodations have a good return-on-investment. It nearly always costs far more to lose an employee than to accommodate them.

How do you know an employee needs an accommodation?

In most cases, they just ask for one. Employees don’t need to use any special legal terms to request an accommodation. They just need to tell a supervisor, HR manager or other leader that they have an impairment that impacts their job. This statement should trigger the process of determining if an accommodation is needed and putting one into place. The employer may (but doesn’t have to) collect medical information about the disability to determine if the worker has a disability and what sort of accommodation might be considered. The Job Accommodation Network has a document that explains when and how to ask for medical documentation.

Finding an effective accommodation

A woman slowly pushes a library book cart with one hand while raising one of the books slightly in order to view the cover Though the employer makes the final decision about what accommodation will be used, the employee knows the most about their disability and their job tasks. So, it’s vital to communicate with the employee to find an accommodation that will work. The best accommodations are not always those that are most expensive or hi-tech. Often, simpler is better. Here are some examples:

  • A lawyer with a visual disability gets meeting and training materials in accessible electronic formats.
  • A teacher with post-traumatic stress injury (PTSI) positions her desk so she can see who’s entering.
  • A construction worker with diabetes take three short breaks during the day to test blood sugar and then works longer to make up the time.
  • A cashier who uses a wheelchair has an adapted workstation.
  • A librarian with carpal tunnel syndrome trades marginal job functions with a co-worker.
  • A security guard who is an amputee uses a golf cart to get around at work.

The meaning of reasonable

The ADA requires employers to provide accommodations unless this causes undue hardship. What does this mean? Undue hardship is an “action requiring significant difficulty or expense.” There is no specific cost level that defines undue hardship for all businesses. Rather, it is considered on a case-by-case basis, based on the resources and operational needs of the business. As a small business, keep these points in mind:

  • The most expensive accommodation is not always the best one. Keep it simple and be creative.
  • Before dismissing an accommodation request based on undue hardship, contact your regional ADA Center to discuss the guidance provided by the EEOC.

What is NOT an accommodation?

Here are some examples of what you are NOT required to do when providing accommodations:

  • Two people stand by a work table while having a discussionEliminate essential job functions. Be prepared to show, for every job title, the essential and marginal job functions. You are not required to eliminate essential job functions (those that are central to the reason the job exists) to accommodate an employee, but you might need to eliminate or exchange marginal job functions.
  • Compromise health and safety. If there is evidence that an accommodation would not be safe for others in the workplace, search for another accommodation option. If there are no other options, the worker can be terminated.
  • Reduce productivity. An accommodation should enable an employee to reach productivity standards. But, the employer is not required to reduce productivity standards.
  • Tolerate alcohol or drug use on the job. The ADA does not protect those who are currently using alcohol or illegal drugs. Tolerating alcohol or drug use on the job is NOT an accommodation. However, the ADA does protect those who are now sober, but have a history of addiction or are now in treatment. So, you could be required to provide an accommodation that enables a worker to attend treatment.

Work leave or reassignment—Accommodations of last resort

Work leave or reassignment sometimes might be needed as accommodation options. But these should be used as a last resort. When possible, using accommodations that keep the employee engaged in the job is better for the business and for the employee. For example, can technology be used to enable the employee to work at home full- or part-time? Can there be other changes in work location or equipment? Can marginal job functions be exchanged or eliminated? Finally, beware of “no fault” leave policies that automatically terminate employees who exceed a particular work leave limit. These policies have been found to violate the ADA.

Accommodations: Step-by-step for small businesses

Accommodations are easier to put in place if you take a step-by-step approach—and you can start today!

General steps across your workplace

  1. Identify job functions. Ensure that all job titles and descriptions specify essential versus marginal functions.
  2. Get the word out. Inform all applicants and employees about their right to an accommodation and how to request one.
  3. Create an accommodation process. Create a company-wide accommodation process that clearly specifies who is involved in each step of the process (including how the employee will be involved), what role supervisors play, what communications are needed, the criteria for making decisions (such as if or when medical information will be collected), how accommodations will be funded, and how the effectiveness of accommodations will be monitored.
  4. Consider centralizing accommodation funds and expertise. When possible, centralize your accommodation process by designating expertise and funds. If supervisors are left to create and fund their own accommodations, the process will not be as efficient or effective.
  5. Train managers/supervisors. Educate all supervisors on how to recognize an accommodation request and what to do if they get one.
  6. Track and manage. Create a system to track accommodation requests at every stage. This system need not be complex or high tech. It can be as simple as a spreadsheet. If you are a federal contractor, tracking is a vital part of complying with Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act and VEVRAA.

When an employee requests an accommodation

  1. Acknowledge and confirm. Contact the employee to reassure them that their accommodation request is received and will be processed. Then, give them a brief overview of what to expect over the next few days.
  2. Follow up. Within a week, meet with the employee privately to discuss their disability, which job functions are impacted by the impairment, and how they are impacted. Address employee concerns and what the employee can expect for next steps.
  3. Do a little homework. Analyze the situation and the need. Decide if further information is needed, such as medical information or more analysis of job tasks and equipment. Consult the Job Accommodation Network’s A to Z of Disabilities and Accommodations to get suggested accommodations for specific disabilities.
  4. Choose an accommodation. If you need assistance with choosing an accommodation, consider a free consultation with an accommodation expert at the Job Accommodation Network.
  5. Communicate with the employee. Communicate with the employee about what accommodation they will be using and discuss next steps. Give them an opportunity to voice questions or concerns. Finally, assure the employee that their disability information will not be shared with others in the workplace.
  6. Coordinate as needed. Some accommodations are simple and function immediately. Others might take a little adjustment time or require some brief training before they are up and running. Make sure the employee has the time needed to get used to doing things differently. Also, managers and co-workers who are affected by the accommodation might need some information. Simply tell them that the person is getting an accommodation, which is a right under federal law. Then describe anything they might need to do differently because of the co-worker’s accommodation. Do not tell others in the workplace about the employee’s disability.
  7. Monitor and tweak. After the employee has adjusted to the accommodation, monitor its effectiveness. Talk with the employee to get their view on its effectiveness. Discuss whether their productivity is up to expectation. Consider how improvements could be made.
  8. Stay in touch. Disabilities can change. Jobs can change.